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Project preserves, digitizes maps of thousands of mines

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Friday, Jan. 16, 2009

Federal and state mining officials who hope to one day have "every acre of coal-mining country" covered by reliable maps said a $200,000 project in Pittsburgh is helping to bring them closer to that goal.

More than 8,000 maps, some dating to the 1800s, are being preserved and digitized for uploading to the Internet through a collaboration between Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc., the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining.

Public safety is a key aspect of the project, officials said.

"Quecreek raised our awareness of the need for historical maps," said William S. Plassio, district mining manager for the DEP.

Nine miners were trapped July 24, 2002, in the Quecreek Mine in Somerset County when they breached the abandoned Saxman mine and flooded the tunnel they were working in. All nine miners were rescued after 77 hours.

The miners relied on inaccurate maps that showed them to be 300 feet from the Saxman mine.

Some mine maps have been lost; others, forgotten, Plassio said. Private collectors hold some.

"Our goal is to put as many as we can on the Web," he said.

The oldest map in the collection is of Penn Borough in Westmoreland County in 1861, said Jeanann Haas, head of preservation and special collections.

Miners aren't the only people interested in the maps, said Rush Miller, university librarian and director of the University of Pittsburgh's library system.

Engineers building the Mon-Fayette Expressway consulted the maps, as have home builders.

"They are absolutely a treasure," Miller said.

Library archivists are restoring the maps, some of which haven't been unrolled in a century, through a tedious process that includes wiping years of coal dust away by hand with a sponge, humidifying and flattening. They are then transported to the Office of Surface Mining in Green Tree, where they are scanned and then returned to the library for storage.

The maps are a testament to the draftsmen who created them, said James A. McCaffrey, a senior vice president at Consol.

"They are more than just industrial material -- they are works of art," he said.

Consol pledged $100,000 to the project. DEP is providing $75,000 and the Office of Surface Mining, $25,000.

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